The Path We Take

Turn left in 300 feet … turn left … turn left…. Rerouting … rerouting … rerouting.

Recently, a young relative of mine set out on a 600-mile road trip to attend his cousin’s wedding — and got lost halfway there when his phone went dead. Hearing of his misadventure I was confused. How could someone go so far and then get lost? And how did a dead phone terminate his travels? Did he not consult a map? Own one? Pick up the free one at the state line? No, apparently a map wasn’t needed because he had a smart phone. Until it wasn’t. The would-be wedding guest set off on an eight-hour-plus journey, armed with no more than an address to guide him in where and how he was going. So, what did he do, when the phone, and consequently the GPS, died? He turned around and drove home.

As kids, my older brother and I would sit down with the National Geographic and, starting in June, begin to dream about August vacation destinations. The back pages of the magazine were chock-full of advertisements from state tourism boards. We’d send off for packets from exciting places like Montana, New Mexico, and Idaho, all locations with elevations higher than the six-feet-above-sea-level spot that we called home. Soon, fat packages of maps and “things to do” would arrive in the mail.

The maps would be unfolded on the kitchen table, where we would trace out routes we might take on the most narrow and obscure road possible. “Let’s drive down this little road in this valley south of Missoula,” I’d say. We’d pull out the encyclopedia and read about places we were going to visit. There were shoeboxes jammed with maps in the closet, a big globe and stacks of atlases in the den.

Today, in my own library, there resides a broad assortment of state and international maps and world and historical atlases. Because, maps give us more than a hopeful path to a distant destination. They inform. Why is there a Northwest Angle exclave in Minnesota, and just what is an exclave anyway? Where were the original colonial boundaries of North Carolina? How did the frontier of the late Roman Empire contract? Maps inform, and they also feed our curiosity: Is Puerto Rico surrounded by water? (Why, indeed it is, Mr. President.) They serve as a springboard into the past, present, and future. And, yes, even answer the mundane: What are my options for getting to a wedding in Oregon?

Of course, GPS is a remarkable technological feature. It gets us to a destination without getting lost, without having to wonder where we are. Yet, cocooning ourselves in a cushion of geographical illiteracy also breeds a listless lack of awareness, demanding nothing more from us than an abiding self-interest. And, in the absence of an alternative mode of mapping — whether it’s orienting to the sun or grabbing the gazetteer — when the GPS goes dark, it leaves us with no option but to turn around and go home, wherever that might be.


Approaching storm

Growing up on the Gulf Coast, where life was measured by the big storms, your given name could serve as a handy marker of your age. Post-1957, Audrey disappeared from the lists of incoming elementary pupils almost entirely. After ’69, no one named their child Camille.

In the hallway of our home in Lake Charles, Louisiana, hung a map. On it we plotted the latitude and longitude of each new disturbance as it sprang to life off the African coast or in Mexico’s Gulf of Campeche. My older brother, always a bit of a weather nut, actively tracked the storms. He would often plot an apocalyptic path to our door, then erase the hoped-for trajectory with a “there is always next year” shrug when the storm petered out or went off to blight someone else’s life. It’s not that he ever wished harm on anyone. There’s just something seductive about the destructive power of a hurricane. It’s like watching a Powerball lottery grow, except that the payoff is something that no one really wishes to win.

This past week it was my extended family in Beaumont and Houston who won that lottery, and recipients of the winning tickets will still be dealing with the aftermath in years to come. Harvey is just one in a long list of tropical storms and hurricanes that have recently resulted in 500-to-1,000-year floods in the South: Houston (2010, 2015), Baton Rouge (2016), Columbia, South Carolina (2015), the Carolinas (2016). Sadly, epic floods account for only a handful of the extreme events now occurring with increasing frequency across the globe, and it looks as if this nasty-weather lottery will only keep building to a stronger payout with each daily contribution made to the fund of planetary climate change.

As the waves of Harvey hit the Texas shoreline, likewise a predictable wave of finger-pointing washed ashore. Seems that a certain segment of the population confused the larger community of devastated coastal residents with the lesser community that had voted for Donald Trump, and proceeded to say that they had gotten what they deserved —blaming the whole of Gomorrah on just its naughty residents.

This holier-than-thou attitude rankles me. Because, let’s face it, whether we fall into the camp of climate-change deniers, with their heads buried firmly in the sand, or climate-change acknowledgers, staring in awe as the storm approaches, virtually none of us is doing anything significant to change the planet’s trajectory of catastrophe or to prepare for its impact.

Both camps, by and large, are still active participants in the consumer-industrial machine. Unless we have gone Amish or medieval, we depend on the people of the Gulf Coast for our cushy life. Our great collective illusion of progress is that we can continue to enjoy our current lifestyle simply by making the correct purchasing choices or pulling a lever in the voting booth, that we can use magic or tweak our way out of this mess. We can’t. That life is no longer sustainable.

According to that map hanging in the world’s hallway, the potentially cataclysmic future — for earth and, consequently, for humanity — has now passed the Leeward Islands and is picking up speed and strength. No wiping the grease board when a fantasy destructive track changes its course.

We all have bought into this lottery, and we all are at risk of winning it. So, if there is to be finger-pointing, let’s do it facing the mirror. And in the meantime, fill your bathtub with water, stock your larder, and prepare for landfall.

These are the Days of the Evil Uncle

We are currently hosting my fifteen-year-old nephew on the farm for two weeks. I’ve been devoting all my spare hours to developing fiendish new ways to torture this city-born boy. But, it has proved more difficult than this Evil Uncle imagined. I have put him on the fencing rack for seven straight hours, forced him to work in the greenhouse all morning, restring hundreds of feet of electric fence for hogs….and, he was still smiling.

But, on Tuesday I have a plan to finally break his spirit. We will be putting up over three-hundred square bales in the barn. That should do the trick.

In the meantime, breakfast. For, even the condemned deserve a final meal, or, two.

Giving the Finger to Modernity

I practice at being out of step with modernity.

The mercury is already pushing the mid-80s by afternoon, and clouds are beginning to build in the west. I sit in my car in a Pennsylvania parking lot next to a mattress store, watching. Across a field, a boy is perched on the bench seat of a hay wagon, holding the reins to a team of Belgians. Farther back stands an older boy. He is reaching down and catching square bales as they are tossed up to him from other boys on the ground. He already has stacked a layer three-high on the 16-foot wagon. The driver, maybe 8 to 10 years old, twitches the reins and moves the load forward every few minutes before again coming to a stop. Up ahead, the father is driving a second team that pulls a gasoline-powered baler, spitting bales onto the ground at regular intervals as it tracks the windrows of hay.

The scene I observe is a Hieronymus Bosch painting with a twist: In the background of the tableau, the family of man and boys gathers forage for the winter. At the forefront, a stoplight blinks commands on a four-lane highway, the center of a tortured world of strip mall architecture, where the obese and the tattooed pour onto the roads and the pavement groans under bumper-to-bumper traffic. A boy, the same age as the ones working the field, sits in a car, screen-staring his young years away. A man in the front passenger seat stares ahead, oblivious to any other way of living. A Chick-fil-A and an Olive Garden shoehorn the paved landscape and the fields of the family at work.

Farther down the road, back in the stream of modernity, I pass three different buggies of Amish women, all driving teams, their children aboard, moving down the highway at five to eight miles an hour. If the journey is indeed more important than the destination, then these women and their children have learned the lesson well. They are chatting and laughing, as their fellow travelers, mere feet away, are entombed and unsmiling.

Do they ever glance at the cars and wonder, May Swenson-like: “Those soft shapes, 
shadowy inside the hard bodies — are they their guts or their brains?”

I pull into my hotel parking lot, retrieve my luggage, check in, and go up to my room. I open the curtains to glimpse the last of the day. Across another parking lot, across a road, lies another field. In the dying evening light, another man and a team of Percherons pull a manure spreader across the pastures back to the barn. On the seat, on either side of him, are his two sons, sharing an unheard conversation.

Standing at the window of the third floor, in isolation and sadness and cowardice, I think, we chase our lives across the decades seeking a sense of purpose. Yet our gaze is averted from the possibilities and the wisdom gained from living slowly, at five to eight miles an hour.


Reading this weekend: The Ends of the World: volcanic apocalypses, lethal oceans, and our quest to understand earth’s past mass extinctions, by Peter Brannen. An interesting read about all the ways life has been wiped out in the past on this planet. And, it gives you a nice perch from which to contemplate the same.

The Life Before Dawn

It is 5:30 as I head out to the barn, the light of dawn still a couple of hours away. A few hens, alert to my footstep, jump from their roost in anticipation of an early handful of scratch. Floating above the tree line, in the western sky, the moon is a slender crescent. The sheep are quiet in the barn, the roads empty. Perfect.

Life is at its best when I go to bed on time and wake in the early hours. The world seems both smaller and infinite. Like a fresh-fallen snow, these hours hush the bustle of the world of our making. The curtain is pulled back for a while to reveal something less demanding and much more impressive.

As a child, in a house full of siblings, I’d arise way before the sun to check my trotlines for catfish. That time was mine. Slipping silently out of the house, I’d walk through the dark yard to the dock and climb quietly into the jon boat. A push away with the paddle, no light in hand, and I’d coast into the peaceful winter’s morning. I’d hold off using the paddle for long moments, gliding on the smooth surface, enjoying the solitude. Then, after a minute or two, with a few swift strokes, I’d head to the cypress tree along the edge of the pond.

There was always an excitement in that first moment, when, still not using a light, I would reach into the cold, black water for the line and feel it twitch hard in my hands, telegraphing the number of catfish dangling along the hundred yards of its course.

Hand over hand I would pull the boat along the trotline across the pond, a hook hanging every foot. As each catfish came boiling into view, I’d pull up the line so the fish hung on the inside of the boat. The smaller ones would be released, and the big fat-bellied ones I’d drop into the bottom of the boat, where they’d thump about in the slosh at my feet.

It usually took an hour to run the lines and rebait each hook. A quiet paddle back across the pond, then I’d take the catfish up to the house and clean them in the light of the kitchen window. Dad would usually be up with a cup of coffee and the paper when I came inside. I’d put the catfish, two each, in clean empty Guth milk cartons. They’d then be filled with water, labeled, and put in the freezer. There, like ice bricks, stacked igloo-style, they awaited a spring thaw and fish fry.

These many years later, a good predawn ramble or spot of work done in quiet reflection still sets me on the right side when the sun comes up. The workload later in the day always seems lessened if I’m outside in the dark just before dawn — my time when the curtain is pulled back a little, letting in the soft glow of possibilities.

Snow Day

Wethers dining in the snow

The wind is gusting in a low whistle outside my study, blowing snow on the front porch. The mercury reads 15 and it’s still a couple of hours until sunrise. Today’s to-do list has been written: Deliver hay and carry out the usual farm chores. Set up heaters in the livestock watering tanks. Castrate and vaccinate calves, then move cattle to their winter pasture up in the back forty. Dig postholes for the new hog enclosure and set posts in concrete. And, of course, attend to any newborn lambs that may have been born overnight.

As a boy I loved the idea of winter. The beauty of deep snow, the struggle for survival, the sleigh rides down empty back roads; marching along snow-covered trails, trapping rabbits with carefully made snares…. In short, a knowledge about winter gained from Jack London and his ilk by a youth who grew up south of Interstate 10 in Louisiana.

Books of my childhood filled my head with the romance of knee-deep snow, temperatures so cold that lakes froze, the struggle to build a fire and the penalty of failure. So when this Louisiana boy moved to Knoxville, Tennessee, and a few weeks later — January 21, 1985 — the temperature plunged to minus 24 degrees, with about 12 inches of snow to add to the joy, I thought I was living my dream. The city seemed liberated from the demands of the day-to-day. Of course, there was no real struggle. We could always retreat into our drafty old apartments in Fort Sanders to escape the worst of weather. But there was plenty of room to let the inner kid out to play.

That joy and wonder has been tempered since we moved to the farm in 1999. We have had plenty of gorgeous snows and any number of brutal cold snaps. We have had ice storms and been unable to leave the property for a week. But now, when I look at the forecast and see that it will not be above freezing for 4-7 days, that there might be an inch or a dozen of snow, I clap a hand over my inner child’s mouth. Because I know what the data mean now. And I know that no boss is going to call me and say “we are closed today.” The farm doesn’t get a snow day.

Winter on the farm means breaking ice, hauling hay in slick mud and snow, loading hogs in finger-numbing cold, fixing the burst pipe in the workshop because I forgot to turn off the water. It means carrying the rock bar up to the back forty to bust the ice on the pond so the cattle can drink. It means that instead of sitting in my chair reading about Shackleton, I have to get out in the goddamned weather and be Shackleton … even if only for a few hours.

Yet, still this morning, as I wait for the predawn light, the kid who loved Jack London is awake and waiting to see the beauty of a snow-covered world. Possibly, when the temperature rises above 20, there will be a walk across the farm. I’ll go down a wooded path with the trees frosted in white blankets, listening to the muted world of the snowy valley.

But for now, I think I’ll postpone the walk and the non-essentials of the to-do list, and instead sit wrapped in a blanket and read about Shackleton on the Endurance.


Reading this weekend: A Movable Feast by Ernest Hemingway

A Crow Perspective: revisited

I have been spending a few days in Louisiana visiting. First with family in Lake Charles and then enjoying a weekend with my brothers and a brother-in-law in a cabin. So, I’ll leave you with this post from the archives on family, mortality and being part of a community.

The wind has been up and blowing hard in the high crowns of the oaks since dawn. The crows seem to love these times, their caws to each other in the trees having only recently returned to the soundscape—a clear indication that fall is near. The crows radiate intelligence and even nobility, black shrouds of solemnity observing the change of the season.

The maple leaves are turning backwards, a prelude to dying in a burst of color in another month or two. The woods are dense with an undergrowth of seedlings and brush. Rabbits seem to occupy the corner of every glance, as does the telltale flag of the deer bounding just out of sight. The high today of 72 is welcome after the recent late-summer blast of 90 degrees.

Last Monday evening Cindy and I were both involved in the type of farming accident that is always lurking in the background. We emerged cut, bloodied, bruised, battered and clothes in tatters. Fortunately neither of us ended up in the hospital, or worse, but for a few minutes that evening, it certainly could have gone either way. The cawing of the crows to each other overhead as we made our way back into the house relayed the news the old-fashioned way.

I left the next morning and caught a flight to my homeland of south Louisiana. It’s a place where the honorific “Mr.” or “Miss” still precedes the first name of an elder when addressed by someone younger. Walking with my dad, now 87, I watched with admiration as he was greeted repeatedly with a friendly “Hello, Mr. Bill.” At a farmer’s market, children approached my sister Kathryn with a respectful “Miss Kat.” At a fast food chain, I was pleasantly surprised to find that the same salutation was used with customers: “Mr. Brian” and I was handed my breakfast.

No crows heralded my arrival or departure from my ancestral home. But none were needed to convey the shades of change coming in the not-too-distant future. Life is, as they say, terminal, and unlike the ancient Romans, we do not need to consult the entrails of a slaughtered bullock to recognize the inevitable change and cycle in life. With my family in the evening, in a house full of laughter, I watched my dad, surrounded by his children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. The next morning, he was still hale and hearty as we two stood in the graveyard. The tombstones of my mother, sister, and brother and my dad’s mother, aunt, and father stood in front of us. Without sadness, my dad pointed out where he and my stepmother would be buried when their time comes.

Farming, as we do, fine tunes an appreciation of the inevitable cycles of life: butchering a rooster and hearing the peep of newly emerging chicks, delivering a ewe to the slaughterhouse and assisting in the birth of a lamb; helping our old dog as she struggles to rise from stiff slumber and savoring the first tomato of the season, grieving the death of a sister and sharing a glass of wine with her daughter.

The seasons change, the wheel moves, and the crows always return.